In the closing years of the fourth Century AD, a man who had had a life of sexual and intellectual adventures, while weeping about his past under a fig tree, heard a child chanting in Latin ‘Tolle Lege’ ‘Tolle Lege’ ‘Pick up and read ‘Pick up and read’.
He picked up a Bible and his eyes fell on Romans 13:13-14: “not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh and its lusts’.
He describes that ‘at once it was as if the light of relief from all anxiety flooded into my heart. All the shadows of doubt were dispelled’.
That man was St Augustine of Hippo, described as the most significant Christian thinker after St Paul. It was the turning point in his life.
His book The City of God shaped the basis for understanding the Bible and laid the foundation for much of medieval and modern Christian thought.
In the Middle Ages, a monk struggled with the concept of righteousness with what he perceived to be the grim wrath of God. But reading Romans he realised that that righteousness is something which the faithful are clothed by God. When this dawned upon him he said that it was as if this passage from Paul ‘had opened the gate to paradise’.
That monk was Martin Luther. His discovery was the starting point of the Reformation.
In the eighteenth century, an Anglican minister writes that he went ‘very unwillingly’ to a meeting of Moravians in Aldersgate Street (the happy clappies of their day) and someone was reading Luther’s introduction to Romans.
He wrote, ’About a quarter to nine while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust Christ, Christ alone for salvation and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins even mine and saved me from the law of sin and death’.
That Anglican minister was John Wesley and the result of that meeting was the beginning of Methodism, which totally transformed England and quite possibly stopped a French style Revolution happening here.
All of these great men had life changing moments reading St Paul’s Letter to the Romans. And the world was totally transformed by the changes this book made to their lives.
So, as we start to study Romans, we are on hallowed ground. It is arguably the most important book in the Bible for understanding the gospel: The good news of Jesus Christ. This is why we are studying Romans this year at Valley Worship.
St Pauls Letter to the Romans was written by St Paul around 57AD (probably about the same time as Matthew, Mark and Luke, the synoptic gospels) to the church in Rome. Unlike his other letters which were written to churches or people he knew, he did not know the church in Rome, and so Romans is really a comprehensive statement of his understanding of what he believes about Jesus Christ.
But the Epistle to the Romans is not easy and, as we have been reading out what is said in Chapter 1, I can quite imagine that some of us may have been very hurt by some of what Paul has written and, if you have been, please do speak privately to me afterwards.
Even St Peter found St Paul’s writing challenging. St Peter writes in 2 Peter 16 ‘His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort as they do the other Scriptures to their own destruction’.
And there is none more difficult that this first chapter of Romans. But can I assure you that as we get deeper and deeper into this incredible letter, there is some wonderful life transforming stuff in here; so please do stick with us on this!
The letter is so packed with content that we could spend weeks just covering one chapter, so I just want to focus on one topic from this first chapter to this world changing book of Romans: the wrath of God; the wrath of God!
When I worked in Dubai, I worked for a man who had an explosive and completely unpredictable temper. I used to describe it as being like smoking next to an open barrel of petrol; you never knew when it would go off!
But it wasn’t a problem because I was used to it from the way my stepfather behaved in my teens.
We may all have our own experiences of people in power over us with their capricious tempers, with their lack of self control, their vanity, animosity, malice and revenge.
God’s wrath is not like that!
God’s wrath is not like that!
God’s anger is not unpredictable. Its not the product of a lack of personal self control. `As John Stott writes: God’s wrath does not mean that God flies into a rage or is ever malicious, spiteful or vindictive. So what does this expression ‘wrath’ mean?
Theologian Martyn Lloyd Jones describes God’s wrath as his hatred of sin. His hatred of sin. John Stott points out, God is not neutral in the moral conflict in the world. His wrath is his holy hostility to sin; his refusal to condone it or come to terms with it his just judgment upon it. He never says ‘it doesn’t matter what you do, who you are becoming’. He never says ‘it doesn’t matter what you do’.
But what is sin?
Sin is the activity and condition of humans that is offensive to God. Paul argues that by simple examination of the way that the world has been created (verse 20) God’s character is really known to us all and our opposition to him, despite knowing his character from what is around us, is sin and manifests itself in actions which separate us from him. The most important of which is living in this world that he has created and not being grateful to him for it (verse 21). But principally setting up other gods, rather than the Lord God, as our god (verse 23) worshipping created things things we have made: Money, Houses, Sex, Possessions or even worshipping other people; making them the top priority in our lives, the thing we are most sensitive about rather than worshipping our Creator, and all the acts and decisions that flow from this worship, prioritising these things over loving others, for example.
God’s response to all this is ultimately judgment eternal separation: sheep and goats and we will be learning more about this later, as we go through Romans. But his response now is to give us sinners over to the sinful desires of our hearts (verse 24). To give us over to the sinful desires of our hearts.
It seems that God’s wrath now operates, not like a thunderbolt from the sky, but by letting men and women go their own way.
I think there is a danger in these days of getting transfixed by verse 26 and 27 and ignoring verses 28-31; a danger of getting fixated with the physical and ignoring what Paul calls the ‘depraved mind’. If you look down the list of issues which Paul puts in this latter category: greed, envy, strife, malice, gossip, slander, insolence, arrogance, boasting, disobedience to parents, amongst other things, we are all guilty of many if not all of these faults and of course you can see the outcome which Paul predicts – ‘such things deserve death’ (by which I think he means loss of eternal life, rather than an end to the lives we are living now) and not only do we do these things, Paul says, verse 32, but we approve of those who practice them…
Do you know what the worst sin is? So often we think it is the one sin that someone else is tempted to commit but we are not…..
Last week an unfortunate playground discussion between two young children resulted in a request to me from the Head of our primary school to explain the Church of England’s position on human sexuality. I explained to her that in the seven years I have been here I have never preached on this issue…..
I know how sensitive this is: we all have lovely friends and sometimes relations who face these issues. I know how so many of our lives are affected by them.
But it was an opportune moment to bring myself up to date with this issue in the Church and fortuitously I was meeting the Archdeacon Richard Brand that day and was able to have a discussion with him about this.
The Church of England is in a period of deep reflection on issues of human sexuality in advance of the Lambeth Conference of Bishops this year. The programme is called ‘Living in love and faith’. You can find their website on google – I will put a link on our website. Living in love and faith They will, I believe, make some recommendations for the conference which may eventually result in a policy position.
In the Church of England we are required to take into account scripture, tradition and reason (reflecting the three traditions of the Church of England: evangelical, catholic and liberal), in deciding what the policy of the church should be. But also in the Church of England there is generally room for individual clergy to take a range of views. We are not closely controlled from the centre.
I am going to wait to see what happens at Lambeth and study the results of the study and the conference, but I can pretty well imagine what the outcome will be: we will be encouraged away from condemnatory language; we will be encouraged to be kind, and decisions on such issues as gay marriage will be left to the conscience of the individual rector!
Not easy at all……
And a decision that I will need to discern as rector, following my conscience, if new policy of the Anglican church is introduced as a result of the Lambeth Conference, a decision which is bound to be unpopular with some, whichever way I make it!
On the one hand, do, should we, as a church stand aside from scripture such as this passage from Romans and stand aside from our traditional view on what it means and find, maybe relying upon ‘reason’ some new work of the Holy Spirit in this area of human sexuality?
Or do we see God’s unchanging nature as fixed on this issue and revealed in Scripture, in which case, it seems to me that we can only do this with integrity if we also take those issues of a depraved mind listed by Paul in verses 29-31 which according to Paul are all worthy of losing our salvation: greed, envy, strife, malice, gossip, slander, insolence, arrogance, boasting and disobediance to parents, which may apply to us and if we take them so seriously that we ourselves are willing to change as much as we might hope that others will do so also.
Well…..so we will be all feeling rather shell shocked by this talk I suspect. We might be wondering if we can step further down this path of reading and studying Romans; but don’t worry….! bear with us…! there is so much life changing encouraging stuff in Romans, once we get out of the initial foothills of these first couple of chapters, as St Augustine, Martin Luther and John Wesley found and what they learned from reading this book completely transformed their world and it can transform ours as well
Romans Chapter 1
1 Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3 the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, 6 including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,
7 To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Guilt of Humankind
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; 21 for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23 and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.
24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. 29 They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Ro 1:1–32). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.